Ask A Scientist

Why does alcohol affect the way you act? 

Asked by: Jack Olsian
School: St. John the Evangelist
Grade: 5
Teacher: Anu Rai
Hobbies/Interests: Lacrosse, skiing, video games 
Career Interest: Olympian 


Answer from Jessica Surdey

Instructor, Health and Wellness Studies

Research area: Stress, identity, self-esteem
Interests/Hobbies: Exercise, home renovation

Alcohol, or ethanol, is the chemical found in beer, wine and liquor. Alcohol is made by the fermentation of yeast, starch or sugar, including grains like rice and wheat, sugarcane, potatoes, grapes, apples and other fruits. When we drink alcohol, it is absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine.

Alcohol impacts the way we act because it is a chemical depressant that slows down the brain and central nervous system. Alcohol also affects other organs and systems like the heart, liver, pancreas, kidneys and digestive tract. Drinking puts you at a greater risk for cancer and organ failure; and it slows down the immune system, so we can get sick easier when drinking.

The depressant effect of alcohol has a big impact on several brain processes. It changes our thinking, judgment, perception, temperature, reaction time, motor/muscle control, vision, hearing, balance, movement, mood and emotions. It can change the size of the brain and cause psychological disorders to develop. A person can have very unpredictable mood changes and go from happy to sad in a short period of time when drinking. This can cause conflict between people, with fighting and arguing.

Alcohol impairs decision-making and the quality of skilled work. We should never drive a car when drinking because we don’t have the ability to make good decisions, and the slowed reaction time really places us and others on the road in a dangerous situation.

A standard drink equals 0.6 ounces of pure ethanol, which is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor. How a drink of alcohol impacts us depends on weight, age, gender, ethnicity, genetics, body composition, general health, and the presence of other drugs or medications. When a person consumes a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time, it causes alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning is the body defending itself trying to get the toxins out, resulting in vomiting, extreme sleepiness, unconsciousness, difficulty breathing, dangerously low sugar, seizures and maybe even death.

Alcohol is the most widely used drug in the U.S. About 51 percent of adults 18 years and older are regular drinkers (at least one drink a month in the last year). About 17.6 million people, or 1 in 12 adults, suffer from alcohol abuse or alcoholism. It is important to think about all these risks, and mind and body side-effects, before deciding to drink!

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Last Updated: 9/25/14